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Editorial: It’s time for APS to get students back in the classroom

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risks of reopening schools are acceptably low with proper precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

A North Carolina study in the Journal of American Pediatrics looked at 11 school districts and nearly 100,000 students and found “no instances of child-to adult transmission.”

President Joe Biden and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are encouraging schools to reopen with COVID Safe Practices.

And Wednesday night, the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education can respect the science and allow students to return to class, allowing them to start addressing the learning they lost in the pandemic, or continue frustrating online learning.

Two weeks ago, board members talked for hours without result about how the state’s largest school district could reopen. Students demonstrated outside APS’ main offices to return to school, while teachers demonstrated against, under the theme “Green or vaccine — whichever comes first.”

Ultimately, the board tabled a reasonable plan presented by interim Superintendent Scott Elder that would have allowed students to return in phases starting Feb. 22. On Wednesday night, Elder is expected to present another proposal. The Albuquerque Teachers Federation is calling for in-person learning to be voluntary for staff until COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. (As school employees are ineligible for the vaccine unless they are in another priority subgroup, waiting for vaccines would delay in-person classes until next school year – or longer.)

That means no in-person classes and no sports or extracurricular activities. Consider this from a Journal reader:

“The APS laptop(s) my grandson must use for distance learning have crapped out six times over the past year. Next time, he will probably throw it against a wall. His mother received a call from his English teacher worried about his mental health. After the first counseling session, she was told to hide all the knives in the house. High School athletics are everything to this dear boy. The best years of his young life are hell right now.”

Everyone is in agreement remote learning is a woefully inadequate substitute for classroom instruction. It was supposed to be a stop-gap measure until schools could safely reopen. Now the CDC, the president, the governor, medical professionals and many parents – who are handing over the most precious thing they have – agree that time has come.

Yes, teachers’ lives have also been upended by the virus. Of course they, too, have fears of illness as the pandemic and its new variants dominate the news cycles. But New Mexico cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus are down – way down. On Tuesday the state reported 308 cases; that number was close to 3,000 a day in November.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has said Bernalillo County won’t likely reach green status until April. By then, it will be too late to salvage any portion of the spring semester.

A legislative report in fall 2020 said school closures in the spring could have cost elementary and middle school students four months to more than a year of learning. It’s now 2021, and learning has devolved to the point the Public Education Department has asked the feds to OK standardized testing with no consequences, such as holding a student back a grade.

PED waived all standardized testing of students after March 13, 2020, so for almost a year there has been no standardized measurement to gauge academic performance or help teachers and parents ensure students are on track. Now PED wants to hand all a free pass to the next grade – if they had internet access or not, poured themselves into online education or never logged on. Students ultimately pay for that.

It is likely they are falling behind peers in states where schools have resumed in-person instruction. They, their parents and teachers deserve to be able to address learning loss as needed, via intensive tutoring or repeating a grade. Prolonging the “lost year” to 18 months adds risks of family stress, unreported child abuse, hunger, depression, suicides.

Changing mindsets about navigating life in the pandemic can be difficult. But our K-12 system has had a full year to prepare, and Elder and state and national experts are confident it can be done safely. It’s time APS got on board and let our kids back in class.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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